He and Rubio are the only two top-tier candidates I thought might pass on the race, and the only reason I thought Rubio would skip it is if Jeb Bush snapped up all the political talent in Florida for his own run. Cruz, I imagined, might pass simply because he can afford to play the long game. Rubio is no sure thing to get reelected in a purple state like Florida so it might be now or never for him; Cruz, on the other hand, will keep his Senate seat in the red state of Texas for as long as he wants it. He’s a phenomenon on the right but the establishment hates him for his role in the shutdown last year. Maybe, I thought, he’ll size up this year’s huge, talented Republican field and decide that a 44-year-old conservative rock star could use some extra time to repair relationships with the donor class. If Hillary wins next year, he’d be well positioned to run a “back to basics” conservative campaign in 2020 aimed at a party desperate for victory after being shut out of the White House for 12 years. Or maybe he’d decide then that it’s a sucker’s game to challenge an incumbent president and wait for 2024 to run, when he’ll be all of 52 years old, the same age Chris Christie is right now. Besides Rand Paul, he’s the only top-flight candidate in the GOP’s stacked field who’s facing neither the pressure of age nor the pressure of facing a tough reelection back home if he sticks with his current office. And even Rand is under some pressure to seize the day and hope that America’s war-weariness and concerns about government surveillance amount to a “libertarian moment” that makes him viable nationally. If there’s a winning constituency out there for him, it could be fleeting. Cruz’s constituency will still be there in eight years.

But no, it sounds like he’s ready to roll.

Team Ted Cruz is taking shape, and the Senate first-termer’s presidential campaign could start before this spring.

The Republican senator from Texas tentatively plans to launch in the first quarter of this year, with senior campaign roles to be filled by the triumvirate he signed last summer to expand his political operation. At the top is Jeff Roe, whose organizational title is undefined but who would be the campaign’s chief strategic and logistics decision-maker. Jason Miller would shape and oversee campaign messaging; Lauren Lofstrom would direct fundraising.

Cruz is in the process of “feeling out” additional campaign hires and prospective donors in preparation to join the field of 2016 candidates. If the senator decides to run for president, he wants to hit the ground at full speed, a senior Cruz advisor confirmed Monday…

“His early reviews among tea party audiences have been stellar in Iowa,” a Republican insider in the Hawkeye State told the Examiner. “I don’t think he can appeal as broadly in the party or in the general electorate as other candidates, but his support will be intense among those voters who have the highest anger score.”

He told Breitbart he’s looking “very, very seriously” at running. If you doubt that, watch the snippet below (via CNS) of his speech this weekend to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention. Typically Cruz derides the “mushy muddle”: that phrase has now become the “Bushy middle.” (He name-checks Romney too as an example of the decent but squishy losing moderates whom the GOP has run lately.) I wonder how he sees his path to the nomination. Obviously he needs to score in Iowa, either winning outright or finishing a strong second, to show that he’s a factor with socially conservative electorates who should respond well to him. If he underperforms, finishing behind Huckabee and Rand Paul, say, he’ll be in trouble out of the gate. No one expects him to win New Hampshire, so he’ll need South Carolina to propel him to the front of the pack. If he wins Iowa, then beats a constellation of tough opponents in South Carolina, he’ll take his chances in Florida and then hope to clean up in the southern primaries in early March. By that point, if he’s a serious threat to win the nomination, the donor class will have lined up behind Bush or Romney or whoever to stop him. And as one conservative activist told MSNBC recently, “We can stamp our feet and cry and beg, but the establishment gets who it wants.” But that’s okay: It may be that Cruz, expecting fierce establishment resistance, is running more for vice president. If he’s got 40 percent of the party behind him, Bush or Romney may have no choice but to put him on the ticket to make tea partiers happy. And then Cruz will be perfectly positioned as heir apparent down the road.

The argument for running now instead of later is, well, why wait? Obama’s victory proved that the electorate is open to young first-term senators. And there’s no guarantee that his chances will be better in four or eight years than they are right now. Look at Christie, or Mike Huckabee: Both of them stood a far better shot at the nomination four years ago, against a weak field and a flawed nominee in Romney, than they do now. So long as Cruz remains Mr. Tea Party, scourge of RINOs everywhere, he’s going to face entrenched donor-class opposition whether he runs now, in 2020, 2024, or whenever. They’ll recruit some other moderate, maybe John Thune, to run as party champion in the next cycle to make sure there’s an attractive alternative to Cruz. In which case, from Cruz’s standpoint, why not leap now and let the chips fall where they may? He’s a gifted enough speaker to have talked himself into a Senate seat in Texas by the time he was 42. Why not take a shot at talking the country into making him president at 46?